At first I considered waiting until next February to post this for “Black History Month,” but as much as I think “Black History Month” is important, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not discuss black history the rest of the year. Anyway, in two days it will be Juneteenth, and as far as I’m concerned that should be a national holiday. We can celebrate when Columbus arrived to rape and pillage, or the birthdays of slave-owners and indian-killers, but not the day of Emancipation? Feh. So, not that we need an excuse, but Juneteenth is as good an occasion as any. . .
Among the comics I excavated from my “Raiders of the Lost Comics” project was issue #13 of Golden Legacy: Illustrated History Magazine from 1972 (some sources say 1971). Golden Legacy was a black-owned and created comic series that ran from 1966 to 1976, published by Fitzgerald Publishing Company and written in part by the publisher himself, Bertram A. Fitzgerald, Jr. It was this same publisher that put out Fast Willie Jackson, a blackified version of The Archies from the 70s, that only lasted 7 issues (and that I would love to get my hands on). Each issue of Golden Legacy focused on the life and achievements of one or more figures or events in black history, and the issue I discovered is entitled “The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.” It was a thrilling find, because I had never heard of these comics, and this particular issue was notable to me for three reasons.
First of all, the comic story itself. It may be nothing special in terms of form or content, but the art is more than serviceable and actually includes some interesting paneling that uses the comic form to show the passage of time in ways that comics do best. The writing, however, is kind of pedestrian. It makes no effort to use the evocative prose that a life like MLK’s might inspire, nor does it really complicate the typical narrative of his life. I think this is mostly because the comic magazine was meant to educate children, but I am not a proponent of simplifying things for kids. There may be things they would not understand in a more nuanced presentation of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but children should be challenged and in spending time with a comic they can come to understand better what it is they are reading. I am not saying that the comic needed to cover any personal flaws or foibles of MLK, nor would it be reasonable to cover information about how he was surveilled by Hoover and the FBI, since I do not think that information was widely public by 1972, but rather, the comic provides little contextualization for Jim Crow, nor does it explore the tense relationship between MLK and JFK and the federal government in general. As is common, for example, the comic retells the myth of Rosa Parks acting alone on that bus as a spark for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, rather than spending any time showing the work that went into the effort—like her training as an activist. There is no issue of Golden Legacy about Rosa Parks, but only 16 issues were ever published—that said, the only woman featured in any of those issues is Harriet Tubman.
Despite this criticism, the Martin Luther King Jr. issue does succeed at portraying King’s integrity and will, as panel after panel depicts his many arrests and the violence he and followers suffered—from his house being fire-bombed to police-beatings. The comic is clear in asserting that unjust laws need not be obeyed, and that organized violation of those unjust laws is necessary to work towards changing them.
Secondly, Golden Legacy is an important comic series and having discovered it, I am anxious to get my hands on more (if not all) of the issues (I am particularly interested in its take on “Ancient African Kingdoms” from issue #15). In the context of the marginalization of black comics and the erasure of black history, this series was an effort to establish a venue for the former and disseminate information about the latter. As the publisher writes in his introductory letter to readers on the comics’ first page, “The intention of our publication is to implant pride and self-esteem in black youth while dispelling myths in others.” The series received endorsements from the NAACP, the National Urban League, the New York City Board of Education, and proudly listed Dr. Benjamin Quarles, an African-American historian and professor at Morgan State College as a consultant. Furthermore, unable to distribute the comic through the usual comic distribution companies, Fitzgerald Publishing had to partner with various corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola and A&P (who were trying to reach out to black consumers), starting with issue #3 (1967), to afford to print and distribute enough copies to make the venture viable. Fitzgerald also claims to have had to deal with threats, theft and intimidation, including a printer who passed on a threat from “a major comics book publisher” to break his legs if he did not stop publishing.
The third and most fascinating part of the particular issue I got my hands on, however, is not the story itself, or even the history of Golden Legacy (which I was happy to research and was dismayed to have never heard of before—I mean, Ezra Jackson, Golden Age horror comics legend did art for them!), but rather one of those full-color back cover corporate ads I mentioned above. In this case, the ad is for A&P, and it doesn’t advertise lower prices or more selection or fresher produce, but instead is a direct appeal to the black community.
The ad is a response to Operation Breadbasket, an effort started by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to address economic conditions in black communities across the United States. Jesse Jackson would come to lead the organization and Chicago would become a central focus for its national efforts (a fact mentioned in the comic itself).
Operation Breadbasket’s primary modus operandi was pressuring white businesses to hire black employees and to purchase goods from black vendors through negotiation and, if necessary, through boycotts. A&P supermarkets, which at the time were the largest national chain of supermarkets (and one of the largest national chains, period) was the target of one of the first national boycott organized by Operation Breadbasket—and rightly so. At the time, A&P had 40 stores in African-American neighborhoods in the Chicago area, and all the employees at those stores were white. Imagine that: butchers, cashiers, stockboys, managers, everyone…white in stores serving black communities.
I am of two minds about the A&P ad, which makes sense seeing as it is kind of two minds itself. It is amazing to me because 1) I cannot imagine a national company so frankly addressing the material effects of institutional racism in an ad these days, even one in a periodical with an ostensibly vastly African-American audience (especially because in the age of Twitter, it’d be national news right away), and 2) because some of its language still seeks to obfuscate what they are actually guilty of. The first part of the ad reads as follows:
We’re going to make your bag our bag.
In hundreds of Black communities, A&P was the first supermarket on the block.
Our bag was your bag. That’s because we took more pride in our stores. We knew what you wanted and that made shopping a pleasure.
Then things began to change and you told us about it.
Now we’re heading back your way.
This language is astounding. It is hard to resolve taking “more pride in our stores” with the reality of those stores’ policy of gross discrimination against black people. The awkward motto “Make your bag our bag” makes no sense that in light of that history (and from a cynical perspective can be interpreted as a reference to money) . In addition, when I read “we knew what you wanted,” I can’t help but think about the part of the covenant Operation Breadbasket signed with A&P which was an agreement that their stories would carry more products provided by and for African-Americans, that suggests that that is not true. Furthermore, the idea that when “things began to change you told us about it” is a straight up lie! Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say, when things failed to change? There is a sense of cognitive dissonance between the reality that led to many months of boycotting and the eventual capitulation by A&P, and the narrative the first part of the ad constructs.
It is clear to me that whoever wrote this ad was instructed to make sure it was all positive, even when discussing the negative aspects that made this very ad necessary. The second part of the advertisement demonstrates this in the startling clarity with which it addresses the changes to the staff and policy of A&P. The words seem geared to be as positive to African-Americans, as those in the first part seem geared to take the edge off any accusations against the dominant racial power in America. The second part very clearly lists a set of structural changes to the A&P hierarchy that should address the pattern of discrimination.
We’ve got a new Chairman of the Board and a new President. They believe that what’s good for the customer is good for A&P.
Right away they appointed a National Affirmative Action Director. A man who grew up in a changing neighborhood with a changing A&P.
To get things moving in the right direction, he hand picked 7 Black Affirmative Action Managers. Men and women with experience in getting the job done in the community. Schooled in turning words into deeds. They’ll be keeping an eye on your A&P.
We’re also making sure that our managers get the kind of support and incentive they need so that all A&P’s will be great A&P’s.
And soon you’ll be seeing new paint, new lighting, more room to shop, and in many area, new stores. All part of A&P’s brand new bag: Putting more of your bag in our bag.
It is difficult to imagine that a major national chain would talk about affirmative action in such a positive and explicit way in today’s political climate, which has served to transform the efforts to bring social and economic justice to black and brown communities in this country into a narrative where they become injustices against individual whites. If you look at the covenant that Operation Breadbasket got A&P to sign, you see how it sought to create thousands of jobs for under-represented black communities. In the current racial climate of the United States, one white guy not getting a promotion at A&P or some white girl not getting into the college of her choice are considered the greater crime (and the Supreme Court agrees). These days affirmative action has been all but gutted. Arguments against it usually fall into two categories, the less common, but reasoned argument, is that the people of color who benefit from affirmative action the most tend to already benefit from a higher economic class than the majority of people of color who could use such help (though to me that is really just an argument for more educational and economic equity, not less), and the much more common, reactionary and completely specious argument concerning the proverbial “more qualified” white person who loses a job to the “less qualified” black person—which assumes that black people tend to be less qualified and that qualifications are linear and easy to delineate. Let me be clear: I wouldn’t shed any tears over some white guy who feels like didn’t get a job because he is white. 1) I don’t believe that actually happens, and 2) even if it did, it does not reflect a wider system of social and material discrimination against white people in this country. Such concerns make a social issue into a personal issue about people’s feelings—anti-racism is not about protecting people’s feelings. People of color in this country suffer a myriad of painful indignities daily that no social policy is ever going to fix. Rather, there should be housing, employment and educational policies that will help address the material results of those attitudes, both implicit and explicit, both intentional and unintentional.
It probably also bears mentioning that white people already got affirmative action in the form of housing, education and employment policies post-WWII from which most black and brown people were explicitly forbidden to benefit (seriously, look up redlining). The polices just weren’t called affirmative action, but as Karen Brodkin reminds us in her seminal work, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (1998), they helped white ethnic groups assimilate into the privilege of a de-racialized “whiteness” that black and brown people can never access.
Affirmative action has become a taboo term. It has been turned on its head to make white people into the victims, and in the meantime, recently when A&P declared bankruptcy, it was their stores in black communities that were deemed unable to be rehabilitated and closed down. There is a reason why the idea of “food deserts” have become a concern in poor communities. As such—as I suggested at the outset—this Golden Legacy comic is about black history, American history, in a three-fold way. First, there is the content itself, the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., which is clearly important, but an oft-told life to which this particular version of does not really provide anything new. Second, there is Fitzgerald Publishing, as a black-owned and created comic, of which there have been too few (like All-Negro Comics, inc, ANIA, and Milestone). Of which there should be more written about in addition to more examples created in the contemporary moment in an industry that remains overwhelmingly white. And finally, that full back-page A&P ad brings to mind that ole cliché about the more thing change… It is a reminder that the history of change itself can be transformed into a narrative whose use is in arresting change. It is a reminder of the on-going vigilance necessary to call out and address these issues. It is a record of the material efforts to address social and economic inequality that cannot be easily made into a feel good clip of people marching arm in arm singing “We Shall Overcome,” nor into the shocking footage of police dogs and water cannons. The grassroots, nuts and bolts everyday kind of efforts are more difficult to represent as succinctly, and thus are harder to manage, so they are ignored instead. You won’t find any reference to the boycott or the covenant on A&P’s Wikipedia page or on their company website’s extensive “history” page. You won’t find any ads today announcing the hiring of “Affirmative Action Managers” at A&P or anywhere else. Just like you won’t frequently find anyone referencing black-owned comics when discussing the history of the medium.